The Only Way Is Up: Why Belgium are here to stay

They’re not here to take part, they’re here to take over.
European football expert, Neil Caraher, charts Belgium’s ascent to football’s top table.


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Background

In 2002, Belgium were ranked 17th in FIFA’s enigmatic ranking system. Ireland were ranked 14th, to put things in perspective, with both nations having qualified for the World Cup in South Korea/Japan.

While we may reminisce about Matt Holland’s equaliser against Cameroon or Robbie Keane’s status as one of only two players to score against Oliver Kahn in that tournament (the other being Ronaldo – in the final), Belgium enjoyed a similar narrative.

They finished second in their group, below co-hosts Japan, seeing off Russia and Tunisia in the process. They drew the short straw for the last 16 and faced Brazil, however, resulting in a 2–0 defeat to the eventual champions.

Meanwhile, Ireland were matched with Spain, holding them to a draw after 90 minutes thanks to a last minute penalty from Keane. Extra-time proved a stalemate, and the not-yet abbreviated ‘boys in green’ were ultimately eliminated in the subsequent shoot-out.

Belgium failed to qualify for another major tournament until the World Cup in 2014, while Ireland’s only tournament appearance was the lacklustre shambles of Euro 2012. So this is the first time since 2002 where both nations will participate in the same tournament, but the narratives are no longer so similar.

In 2008 I met Jurgen, a Belgian native from the small town of Kapellen. We instantly bonded over football and were excited about that summer’s upcoming European Championships. We laughed that neither of our home countries had qualified, but that self-deprecation soon set the conversation down a different path.

Jurgen had high hopes for Belgium’s footballing future, and he told me about one specific young player who appeared to be an extremely promising talent. I scoffed, but the player’s name was Eden Hazard, and it wasn’t long before he became an integral part of Lille’s starting XI. Hazard won a Ligue 1 trophy with Lille at the age of 20 and already has one Premier League medal to his name with Chelsea.

What followed was a meteoric explosion of Belgian talent. KRC Genk alone helped to produce Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, Steven Defour, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi and Yannick Carrasco.

Ajax harboured a trio of Belgian defenders at youth level – Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen. Vincent Kompany and Marouane Fellaini had already made their way to the England’s top flight by the summer of 2008, joining Manchester City and Everton respectively.

Romelu Lukaku signed his first professional contract for Anderlecht the day he turned 16, eventually moving to Chelsea in 2011. He impressed on loan spells with West Brom and Everton, before signing for the latter full-time. Mousa Dembélé has been joyfully scrapping his way across London for the past six years, boasting stellar spells at Fulham and Tottenham.

Other notable names and rumour-mill regulars include Michy Batshuayi of Marseille, Radja Naingollan of Roma, and Axel Witsel of Zenit.

Look back at 2014 World Cup Performance

This ‘Golden Generation’ of talent looked to be a legitimate contender for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. They went undefeated in their qualifying campaign, finishing top of their group, 9 points ahead of 2nd place Croatia. This was the joint largest points gap between 1st and 2nd across the board, with the Netherlands having also bettered Romania by nine points.

Belgium waltzed through their relatively tame finals group, winning all three games. They faced the United States in the round of 16 in what ended up being a goalkeeping masterclass from Tim Howard, legitimising soccer in America more than any MLS-bound footballing veteran from Europe ever could.

Belgium won in Extra Time, reaching the quarter finals for the first time since 1986. They faced and lost to Argentina (1 – 0, Higuaín), and similar to their 2002 World Cup outing, the team that eliminated them would go on to reach the final.

Even more interestingly, when Belgium reached the quarters in the 1986 World Cup, they beat Spain on penalties and reached the semi-finals where they lost to … Argentina. Belgium can at least be thankful that the South Americans are unable to participate in the Euros, unless the people who allow Australia to enter the Eurovision Song Content suddenly delve into the running of continental football tournaments.

Much criticism followed Belgium’s elimination from the competition. I recall Eamon Dunphy comparing Belgium to England during the post-match recriminations, noting that both teams had major hype going into the tournament but neither lived up to it. One team reached the quarter finals despite failing to qualify for the two previous World Cups; the other finished bottom of a group in which Costa Rica finished top.

In late 2015, Belgium became #1 in the FIFA World Rankings for the first time in their history. Since then they have dropped to 2nd place to make way for none other than pesky ol’ Argentina.

Notable players for this tournament

So what’s different now? Well, a lot of their players have been refined over the past two years. Hazard may not have been at his best this season for Chelsea, but he seems to have rediscovered his form on the cusp of the Euros – a coincidence? People seem to have forgotten just what he is capable of doing, and that may prove useful come the Euros.

Kevin De Bruyne made a big-money move to Manchester City and seemed to have no teething problems with adapting to the Premier League, despite what Chelsea once thought of him. Romelu Lukaku may be at an underperforming Everton (and for how much longer?), but scoring 25 goals in all competitions this season is not easily dismissed, despite having also somehow found his way onto the Stamford Bridge scrapheap. Other attacking options include recently rejuvenated Divock Origi, and hot property Michy Batshuayi.

The midfield will likely produce the biggest selection-headache for Belgium with many players bringing different skill-sets to the pitch.

Mousa Dembélé offers an unbridled level of strength and determination; Radja Naingollan sprints for every ball like a Pitbull on Red Bull; Axel Witsel offers a calmer and more poised approach to the game (bonus: he rocks an afro better than Marouane Fellaini); while KAA Gent’s Sven Kums has garnered somewhat of a cult following after their exploits in the Champions League this season, but including him in the squad would be akin to Ireland choosing Richie Towell. It would probably be somewhat popular and the player would certainly have some qualities, but unlikely to play a minute.

Kompany will be injured for this competition, but that may be a blessing in disguise. This will allow Marc Wilmots, Belgium’s manager, to deploy the Premier League’s best central-defence partnership – Vertonghen and Alderweireld. Alderweireld has deputised as a right-back in the past to accommodate Kompany with a number of other centre-backs such as Thomas Vermaelen and Nicolas Lombaerts. That said, playing Jan and Toby as the centre-backs solves one problem but exacerbates another.

The full-back positions have been Belgium’s Achilles Heel for quite some time now. They would often play Vertonghen at left-back, where he is actually rather comfortable. With Jan moved into the centre, Jordan Lukaku (Romelu’s younger brother) could start there instead, the downside being his inexperience. At right-back they have Thomas Meunier, a regular of Club Brugge’s defence over the past five years, but again does not have much experience at senior international level.

In goals they have one of the most renowned keepers in the modern game, Thibaut Courtois, who missed a sizeable amount of this season with Chelsea due to injury. Courtois appears to be back at full fitness now, and at 24-years-old he’s likely not even anywhere near the peak of his powers yet. Simon Mignolet is their recognisable brand-name substitute goalkeeper: the Champion Milk to Courtois’s Avonmore.

Criticisms

Given all of the finesse and technical ability found in this Belgian squad, particularly with their attacking options, it can be said that their performances have been rather lacklustre to watch, despite some fleeting sparks of creativity.

On paper, a team containing the likes of De Bruyne, Hazard, Witsel, Naingollan and Lukaku should not merely win, but do so with gravitas. They should be a possession-hoarding, Gegenpressing, Leicester-esque counter-attacking machine.

This somewhat sluggish style, in my opinion, is the fault of the man currently at the helm – Marc Wilmots. That’s not to say Wilmots is necessarily a bad manager. He would probably be perceived as a highly capable and competent manager with almost any previous generation of Belgian footballers. It’s not his fault he didn’t predict this squad’s trajectory – or is it? Wilmots has been involved with the Belgian coaching setup since 2009, taking over as manager in 2012. This team didn’t happen overnight… ‘Romelu wasn’t built in day’.

Further evidence of Wilmots’ ineptitude can be seen in Belgium’s recent friendly against Switzerland where he deployed Axel Witsel at right-back. Kompany’s injury has certainly unsettled the Belgian team selection, but both Meunier and Alderwiereld can play there with two very distinct styles.

My Personal XI

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Belgium’s full-backs are their most vulnerable area, so I would attempt to focus more on the team’s strengths. Playing those three at the back allows Vertonghen to divide his time in the centre and out left, while Toby emulates the same on the right. Kompany would be in the position Vermaelen is currently occupying.

Dembele and Naingollan are both just ahead of the back three to provide extra cover when needed, but can also offer an attacking threat.

Then we have Hazard, De Bruyne and Carrasco as an attacking trio. Pace on the wings and one of football’s best playmakers in the centre to keep the pendulum swinging.

Leading the line is Lukaku and Batshuayi, the latter being more nimble and would hopefully help create more space for Romelu.

Predicted XI

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My prediction is that Belgium’s line-up will look somewhat more conventional than my own Personal XI (“stop the presses!”). I hope that Wilmots has the wherewithal to play at least one of either Alderwiereld / Vertonghen as a centre-back, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we saw both deputising on their respective sides, with Vermaelen and Denayer as the central pairing.

I fear Mousa ‘The Bouncer’ Dembélé will not start either in favour of Witsel. Axel is a fine player with more than a few tricks up his sleeve, but on-the-whole I don’t think Belgium possess enough style and poise to best utilise his skills.

Mertens in for Carrasco – a fine player who can produce the goods.

Conclusion

Despite their weaknesses, Belgium’s progression over the past 15 years has been a remarkable achievement. They are going into this tournament hot, looking to partly avenge the disappointment of Rio 2014.

It pains me to write this, but I actually think Belgium will not win the Euros this time around, as a result of mismanagement and tactical ineptitude. I can see them making it to the quarter finals and then simply being outsmarted by France or Germany, or even a team like Switzerland. Belgium certainly have the star players, but not a star manager. The silver lining from this scenario would be that Belgium appoint a new manager going forward – ideally KAA Gent’s current one, Hein Vanhaezebrouck, who led his side to their first ever appearance in the Champions League this season. Gent even made it through their group but lost to Wolfsburg in the last 16. A gladiatorial effort from the Belgian minnows.

Luckily for Belgium, this generation is not a once-off. There is already a crop of young players making waves and garnering some well-deserved publicity. Youri Tielemans, Dennis Praet, Zakaria Bakkali, Charly Musonda Jr, Bjorn Engels and Siebe Schrijvers, just to name a few. This tournament isn’t a Leicester-esque once-in-a-lifetime scenario for Belgium. They’re here to stay.

Neil Caraher

 

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